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How that free stock photo can become the most expensive stock photo you’ve ever used

Graphic designer looking for free stock images
Words by Jacob Lund 18 Jul, 2019 1 comment
Are you using photos from Unsplash, Pexels, Pixabay, or similar sites? Then you should read this. This is what everyone should know before using free stock photos.

Free stock photo sites - too good to be true? 

If you have been using stock photos within the last few years, chances are that you’ve heard about free stock photo sites like Unsplash, Pexels, Pixabay, etc. These platforms offer high-quality photography typically under a free license or a Creative Commons license. This means that the photographers are giving you the right to use the photos pretty much any way you want and not pay a dime for it. Does this sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. 

They give you the right to use the photo, but not the elements in the photo 

There’s an important distinction to be made: There’s a difference between having the right to use a photo and having the right to use all the contents of the photo. 

It all sounds a bit confusing, but it’s actually fairly simple.

When a photographer takes a photo, he automatically owns the copyright to the photo. BUT, he does not automatically hold the rights to commercially use the contents of the photo. Generally speaking, the contents of a photo includes the people in it, the location where it was taken (whether private or public) or other elements in the photo that are trademark or copyright protected. These elements can be anything from  Nike sneakers, a t-shirt print, a car design, or, for example, a tattoo.

It makes good sense if you think about it - if I snap a photo of you unwillingly while you are in a public space, I can’t just sell that photo to a company and let them use it to advertise their brand or product. You would need to give me or the company consent to do so, and this is done using a model release

The same rule applies if I shoot a picture on private property. I would need a property release proving that I’ve obtained consent from the owner to use the photo commercially.


Blogger working on content

Digging into the terms of use


“... you should probably talk to a lawyer…”’
From license pages

These sites generally make you believe that you can use the photos pretty much as you would like. However, you have to dig deeper to understand that you don’t actually have rights to use the elements present in the photos and that these elements might be protected by their own rights.

From Unsplash’s license page: 

Unsplash License


But it is only when you dig deeper into their terms and conditions, that you’ll find this: 

Unsplash License - what you probably didnt know

Here it's written that you must acquire permission to use photos of any trademarks, logos, brands, works of art, authorship, or recognizable people in the photos.

And also - isn't it kind of funny how they suggest in their terms and conditions that you should probably talk to a lawyer if any of this is unclear to you?


Man stressed out at work

Million-dollar lawsuit for copyright infringements

I know of a company that is currently being sued for several million USD for using a photo where they didn’t secure rights to some graffiti that was present in the background of the photo. The case hasn't been settled, and because there hasn't been publicity about it I'll leave out the details as these cases tends to hurt brands quite a lot. Just see what happened when this case from H&M reached the news

A lawsuit like this could mean the death punch to most small business owners. And, while most lawsuits for copyright infringements are smaller than this, I think most people would want to do their best to avoid getting sued. 


But I’m just a blogger - does it really matter? 

Yes. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes for anybody to do a reverse image search on an image and find where that image has been used online. 

Let’s say a model, we could name him Jack, was in a photo that was offered as a free stock photo. Jack didn’t give consent to this. So Jack contacts a lawyer who says: “Jack I’ll take your case,  You don’t have to pay me any fees as long as I get 50% of the settlement from lawsuits”. Jack agrees to this. The lawyer does a reverse image search online - and this way he can quickly find the hundreds or thousands of instances where people have used the free stock photo of Jack. The lawyer starts suing. 

Thousands of lawsuits waiting to happen

When browsing through the front page of Unsplash, I see that almost all of the photos have potential rights issues. From photo to photo you see people, logos, book covers, tattoos, landmarks, etc. and you have no chance of knowing whether or not the required releases and permissions have been obtained by the photographers. 

Apart from the “risk of getting caught”,  there are also just the ethical issues. Would you really want to use a photo to advertise if you weren’t sure that the person in the photo gave their consent to being in a stock photo? 


Photographers working on project

The better choice: Start taking image rights seriously

Most of the bigger renowned stock agencies ensure that there are no rights problems with the photos you buy. This is basically part of the work that goes into making the stock photos that you pay for. The standard procedure at most renowned stock agencies is that every photo contributed by the photographer has to be accompanied by a signed model release/property release. Any element in the photo that would require a release and doesn’t have a release would be rejected by the agencies. 

Some agencies also offer legal protection in case you should run into trouble with a stock image you have used. 


Spread the word

Spread the word

I genuinely wish that more people were informed about this so that they know what risk is involved when using free stock photos. If you are in an industry using stock photos,please spread the word so everyone can start taking rights a little bit more seriously. 

Comments (1)

Peter Pike 17 Jun, 2020

Strange comments. But if on the topic of the article, it is very useful and correct.

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